Directed by James Mangold, Ford v Ferrari stars Matt Damon and Christian Bale as Carroll Shelby, former race car driver turned designer and engineer, and Ken Miles, professional yet unstable driver, respectively. Shelby and Miles team up under the orders of Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) to build a new Ford car that can beat Ferrari at the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race in France.
I know absolutely nothing about car racing beyond the events shown in Ron Howard’s 2013 film Rush. I never knew about Carroll Shelby, Ken Miles, Henry Ford II (or his father), Enzo Ferrari, or the 1966 24 Hours of Le Mans race, so whatever the filmmakers were going to tell here in Ford v Ferrari would be falling on virgin eyes and ears, ready to learn about this crazy world of men and vehicles. How Mangold and the screenwriters carefully educate you not only on the spirit and intensity of racing, but on the humanity behind the wheel and under the bonnet is what drives everything forward at breakneck speed.
It seems odd that Damon and Bale have never worked together before, because from their very first scene, the two explode with chemistry of all kinds, as if they’ve done this a hundred times before. These are two terrific performances of two men who were connected in their love and dedication for the sport, but that also meant that sometimes they hated each other’s guts over small disagreements. Shelby and Miles seem like brothers, and Damon plays up the charming face of the operation who will always stick by his team, and Bale is perfect as the sharp-eyed, brutally honest, loving, effortlessly British, temperamental, perfectionist, and genius driver. Mangold definitely knows what he’s doing when it comes to main performances.
Caitriona Balfe is playing one of the only female speaking performances in the film, and while it is Mollie Miles, wife to Ken, it is no less of a meaty and vitally important one. In a few great scenes, Mollie is the one sitting back and watching two dumb men have a fight with groceries like 5-year-olds, reading a magazine. She knows how dangerous her husbands’ job is and is rightfully pissed when he lies to her or worried when they can’t put food on the table. Balfe has this inherent beauty in her voice and a physicality that invites you into her world and instantly puts you on her side no matter what. As great as Bale and Damon are, Balfe is right up there with them.
Other supporting turns from Noah Jupe as Miles’ son Peter, Jon Bernthal as Lee Iacocca, Josh Lucas as Leo Beebe, Remo Girone as Enzo Ferrari, and Tracy Letts as Henry Ford II, all carry their own particular weight and importance. Jupe is one of the best young actors today and gives a lovely amount of wide-eyed wonder as Peter at his father’s accomplishments. Bernthal is typically awesome like anything he does. Lucas plays slimy and greedy better than he ever played the good guy. Girone is stern and cold-eyed as the great and proud Ferrari. And Letts plays Henry Ford II at first like a typical CEO, with a great, big ego and a massive legacy to hold up, but as soon as he gets inside one of his own Ford race cars he melts under the weight of such power and immense danger. Like I said, Mangold knows how to get great performances out of a great cast.
There have been other car racing movies, some good (Rush, Grand Prix, Speed Racer), some bad (Driven, Days of Thunder, the entire Fast & Furious franchise), but Ford v Ferrari at times threatens to push them all out of the way with top-notch cinematography, production design, sound, and editing that sticks you right in the intensity of the action and doesn’t let you escape until it’s over. This is more than just watching cars go round and round while the actor pretends to drive. This is you feeling every turn, every brake, every gear-change like a gunshot to the heart, blowing your mind with the sound and fury of it all, and at times, you can see that it is Bale or Damon doing their own driving. Director of Photography, Phedon Papamichael, comes up with dynamic ways to shoot speed, whether its putting cameras lower to the ground, having a few impossible moves accomplished with minor CG, having more shots into the driver seat, getting in closer to the driver’s faces, or managing to successfully keep up with these cars when they’re going all out.
On top of all this brilliance, I think the standout elements of Ford V Ferrari are the editing and sound design, accomplished by Michael McCusker & Andrew Buckland, and Donald Sylvester, Steven Morrow, Jay Wilkinson and many more in their team, respectively. Everything in Ford v Ferrari moves at a lightning pace, no shot is too short or too long, no scene outstays its welcome. The editing itself doesn’t draw attention to itself, it simply does its job so effectively that two hours have passed and you didn’t notice. And the sound of this film is what makes it feel bold and explosive, getting in deep into your nerves and making you feel the pulse of an engine or the screech of tires like you’ve never heard it before.
James Mangold has made a solid film that explores car racing at first as the ultimate expression of power and control over man-made machines, and then as a statement against corporate greed holding back the achievements of brilliant minds. Once the climax comes and you realise why the filmmakers are telling this particular story, my heart sank to my feet and I was left immensely saddened by the reality. John-Henry Butterworth, Jez Butterworth, and Jason Keller’s script get to this idea perfectly at the right time you need to see it, and you feel so empathetic to the character’s journeys that you wish the reality just wasn’t so.
Ford v Ferrari might not be the pinnacle of the car racing genre, or even the biopic genre for that matter, and yes it is a 2½ hour film mostly about men being men in cars, but its mostly escapist fun with a powerful and heartbreaking message. Thanks to expertly-crafted production values, terrific performances from Christian Bale, Matt Damon and Caitriona Balfe, and overall sharp-focused direction from James Mangold, Ford v Ferrari is a more-than-worthy glimpse into the crazy and unfortunate world of car racing.
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Matt Damon, Christian Bale, Tracy Letts
Writers: Jez Butterworth, John-Henry Butterworth, Jason Keller